Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879)
Frances Ridley Havergal, Fanny to her family, was born in 1836 and home educated by her father, a rector, in Worcester. She had a lonely childhood being the sixth and youngest child in the family with her siblings all much older than her. Vivacious and affectionate, Frances was a natural favourite in the home; but there was a more hidden side to her nature as well. Deep anxieties regarding her spiritual state burdened her young mind but she built around herself an impenetrable wall of reserve, refusing to confide in any of her well-meaning sisters or even in her parents. Only in the natural world around her and in her love of both music and poetry did she find consolation.
Her mother died in 1848 when Frances was eleven, which she describes as the greatest sorrow of her childhood, and it wasn’t until she was fifteen that she turned unreservedly to Christ in faith. Later she could write: ‘There and then I committed my soul to the Saviour… and earth and heaven seemed bright from that moment – I did trust the Lord Jesus.’
As an adult, Frances struggled with a difficult relationship with her stepmother. Despite her growing popularity as a singer and speaker which often brought her before the public eye along with several offers of marriage, none of her suitors seems to have appealed to her. Although she often felt the pain of her singleness and the lack of any home of her own, life as a wife and mother would necessarily mean less time for the Christian service that had previously engaged her time and strength, and so she firmly rejected the option of marriage.
A divine blessing
Even though Frances had professed faith as a teenager and her energies were oriented towards pleasing and obeying the one she undoubtedly loved, there had always seemed to be a missing ingredient in her spiritual life, resulting in a recurring lack of assurance. In December 1873, at almost 37 years of age, Frances had a spiritual experience that left a profound impression upon her. No dramatic fanfare or crowded emotional meeting could explain the event and what surprised her the most was the unexpected and sovereign nature of the divine blessing. Writing to her sister Maria, Frances describes the occasion:
You know how singularly I have been withheld from attending all conventions and conferences; man’s teaching has, in consequence, had little to do with it. First I was shown that ‘the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth us from all sin’, and then it was made plain to me that he who had thus cleansed me had power to keep me clean; so I utterly yielded myself to him, and utterly trusted him to keep me.
These things were to have a transforming effect, not only on her spiritual understanding but also on the hymns that she wrote. One of the first hymns written after this expresses her new commitment to Christ:
In full and glad surrender
I give myself to thee,
thine utterly and only
and evermore to be.
Reign over me Lord Jesus;
O make my heart thy throne!
It shall be thine, dear Saviour,
it shall be thine alone.
Tireless in her efforts to win others for the kingdom of God, Frances Ridley Havergal packed into the short remaining years of her life more than most would accomplish in a long lifetime. Her constant prayer was:
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated Lord, to thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
The couplets of this, her best-known hymn – one that has been translated into many different languages including those of African and Asian countries – were written in 1874 when she was visiting friends in Stourport. Ten others were staying in the house at the time, and Frances had a strong desire that each person should receive a blessing from the Spirit of God. ‘Lord give me all in this house’ had been her prayer. It was a prayer God heard. After speaking with two of the girls in the family who had seemed unconcerned but had at last expressed spiritual interest, Frances went to her bedroom too happy to sleep. As she renewed her own personal consecration to God, the words of this hymn flowed into her mind, concluding with the pledge:
Take myself, and I will be
Ever, only, all for thee.
Another of Frances Havergal’s well-known hymns also expresses her single-minded desire for the blessing of God on her undertakings:
Lord, speak to me, that I may speak
in living echoes of thy tone;
as thou hast sought, so let me seek
thine erring children, lost and lone.
O use me, Lord, use even me
just as thou wilt, and when, and where,
until thy blessed face I see,
thy rest, thy joy, thy glory share.
The Bible was the sourcebook for all her material, and in a preface to a collection of her hymns she could claim, ‘almost every line has been directly drawn from Holy Scripture, or may be proved thereby.’
With a temperament so lively and intense it is not surprising that Frances Havergal also suffered periods of exhaustion with its accompanying depression of spirits, and, in addition, several bouts of illness. In 1874 she contracted typhoid fever and at one point her life seemed in the balance. The pain was intense and sometimes she thought she could endure it no longer. Then she would feel that she had failed her God: ‘I felt I had not glorified him in the fires because I had lost all my strength and could not bear the pain without moaning and crying out.’ Yet in pity the Lord consoled her with such words as, ‘He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust’. It was during this time of distress that she wrote the well-known words:
Like a river glorious
is God’s perfect peace,
over all victorious
in its bright increase…
Stayed upon Jehovah,
hearts are fully blest,
finding, as he promised,
perfect peace and rest.
Entering the gates of Heaven
Among her own hymns, Frances had one particular favourite:
I am trusting thee, Lord Jesus,
trusting only thee,
trusting thee for full salvation,
great and free.
I am trusting thee for cleansing
in the crimson flood;
trusting thee to make me holy
by thy blood.
This was the hymn her friends and family sang for her as they gathered around her bed as she neared the end of her life, and this was this the hymn that was found tucked in the back of her Bible after her death. In spite of the severe pain she was suffering, her faith did not waver. ‘Splendid to be so near the gates of Heaven,’ she was heard to repeat over and over again and as if she could hardly wait for that moment when she would pass through those gates, she prayed, ‘Come Lord Jesus, come and fetch me. Oh! Run! Run!’
‘That child will die singing,’ someone had once said of Fanny when she was very young and so she did. Singing in a low but clear voice the entire first verse of a favourite hymn written by a friend of hers, and a tune she had herself written, Frances Ridley Havergal joined those celestial choirs that praise the Lamb of God day and night:
Jesus, I will trust thee,
trust thee with my soul,
guilty, lost and helpless,
thou canst make me whole.
This article is taken from Our Hymn Writers and their Hymns by Faith Cook published by EP Books and is reproduced with permission.